SOUTHGATE (AP) — John Gattorn has surveyed human rights abuses in Iraq, delivered aid to Liberia and registered voters in Bosnia. He has studied art in Egypt and monitored an election in East Timor.
But this month, his work brought him much closer to home. The Detroit-born Gattorn is running the Iraqi election effort in Michigan, supervising 500 election workers in the giant warehouse where several thousand Iraqis were expected to register and vote. Between constant cell phone calls, Gattorn organizes security guards and fields questions on Iraqi election law. He says it is the toughest job he has ever had.
“I’ve never been given a three-week time frame to set up an election in my life, and that is beyond a challenge,” said Gattorn, 35, who lives in Washington, D.C., and is on leave from his job as manager of aid to Liberia at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Iraqis eligible to vote have until today to register. Voting is scheduled to begin Friday and last through Sunday.
Gattorn, who grew up in Grosse Pointe Shores, planned to become an art historian specializing in ancient Egypt when he entered the University of Colorado. But his focus changed after spending his junior year in Cairo during the Persian Gulf War.
When he returned to the United States, Gattorn studied foreign policy and Arabic. Later, he earned a master’s degree in international communications from American University while researching human rights violations at Amnesty International.
Gattorn worked his first international election in Bosnia in 1997, when the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe — which was running the election — hired him to register voters. The next year, he worked with OSCE on an election in Kosovo, setting up polling places in 65 villages and advising political parties on election law.
In 1999, Gattorn did election work for the United Nations in East Timor, where voters decided to split from Indonesia in an election that was followed by several weeks of violence.
Gattorn said it is important that international organizations monitor elections in war-torn countries so that voter fraud is minimized and people trust the results. He also believes firmly in following the election laws countries set for themselves.
Gattorn does not question, for example, that Iraq decided to allow people outside the country to vote as long as their fathers are Iraqi. When election workers ask him how far away political signs can be posted from the polling site, he knows it is exactly 100 meters.
“Elections are a science. You can’t just set the rules and regulations at the convenience of your environment,” Gattorn said. “That’s just been hard for people to understand. … My only answer is, `The electoral law of Iraq says so.’ ”
Although he is not of Middle Eastern descent, Gattorn was no stranger to Michigan’s Arab-American community. After college, he spent two years supervising youth programs at the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services in Dearborn.
Gattorn also gained some familiarity with Iraq in 2003, when he was part of a USAID team that went to Iraq after the U.S. invasion. The team, which was based in northern Iraq for six months, confirmed the existence of former dictator Saddam Hussein’s mass graves.
But Gattorn knew little about Michigan’s Iraqi community when he was hired in December to run the election by the Swiss-based International Organization for Migration. Working out of his rental car, he organized a meeting with the Network of Iraqi American Organizations, a Michigan-based coalition of 19 groups that immediately committed volunteers.
Abdulrasul al-Hayder, an Iraqi from Detroit who helped Gattorn organize the election, said Gattorn is a good listener who has earned the respect of the community.
“He is straight, determined and focused on the central issues,” al-Hayder said. “He doesn’t like to lose time or effort in side things. He goes directly to the center of any matter.”
Not everything has gone perfectly. Many Iraqis were disappointed with the Southgate location, which is far from the Oakland County home of many Chaldeans. Cold, snowy weather depressed voter turnout. Gattorn also said there’s been a serious lack of voter education.
“You could really sense (voters’) frustration,” Gattorn said. “They knew the election was happening, they want to make a difference, the opportunity is here, but they don’t know who’s on the ballot.”
Despite the shortcomings, Gattorn said it is gratifying to be part of the election alongside Iraqis eager to make a difference in their homeland.